Saturday, April 23, 2011

Jewish Parenting Through the Liturgy - 1

Traditionally, morning prayers open with a list of 14 benedictions, originally said as people began their day - there was a prayer for unwrapping oneself from one's covers, for putting on one's shoes, for tying the belt around one's coat. Eventually, the list found its way into the prayerbook and was recited together, whether at home or in the synagogue, after all those preparations had already been completed. As I have read these benedictions, I have been regularly impressed with lessons they can teach us as parents, and in this blog I will be reflecting on each of the benedictions, one a day, for the next few weeks (holidays permitting).
The First Benediction - Making Distinctions
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה
Praised are You, Adonai, our God and Sovereign of the Universe, who gave the rooster the ability to distinguish between day and night.

What an odd benediction! Why on earth would we be worrying about roosters? The language, of course, is symbolic - back before alarm clocks and the plethora of technology that wakes us up in the morning, there was the local rooster, crowing often before dawn, to get our day going. We depended on that guy, to be sure we were awake in time to say the morning Sh'ma, so that all our obligations could be fulfilled at the proper time. We were, therefore, thanking God for putting mechanisms in place in the natural world to help us fulfill our obligations to God.

So what does that have to do with parenting? I like to think of the benediction as making a statement about the ability to tell the difference between black and white. If, after all, a mere rooster can tell when the sun is up far enough to announce the new day, why can't we make distinctions?

I'm thinking in particular of the choices parents make when disciplining their children. When we are in the midst of a behavioral crisis, the last thing we are able to do is step out of our confrontation with our son or daughter and consider just what we are doing. To my way of thinking, knowing the distinction between day and night, in parenting terms, is knowing what to "go to the mat for." How can we tell the difference? How can we know when to smile and let it go, and when to put our foot down? How do we deal with tantrums? When do we just let it go, and when do we apply the time-out? There are no easy answers, but the asking of the questions is what's important. A rooster may know the difference between day and night, but after all isn't the presence or absence of light fairly obvious? Making distinctions in how we respond to our children's behavior is far more difficult.

I don't have any wisdom to impart. What I do have is the experience of raising three rambunctious sons and watching (at this point) two of them raise their own children. I also have the experience of watching my friends' children and grandchildren, and of having to bite my tongue on a regular basis, sometimes, watching certain behavior, thinking, "Why are you allowing that behavior?" and other times, watching other behavior, thinking, "Is this really so terrible?" There are parents who are afraid to say no, afraid to set limits, afraid their children will hate them. And then there are parents who feel the need to control every one of their children's choices. Neither of these kinds of parents has figured out the need for distinctions. Neither of these kinds of parents has fully embraced the idea that parenting is very hard work, and that the work isn't only about laundry and finding the right schools and keeping the kids in clothes and shoes. The real hard work comes with understanding what's expected of us as disciplinarians. We know we need to be consistent in our approach, but consistent how? Always saying no? Always saying yes? And is "consistent" the same as "always"?

There is, of course, another difference between parenting and listening to that rooster. God put in place in the natural world a mechanism to get us going in the morning so that our obligations may be fulfilled. I'm not aware of any mechanism in the natural world for knowing instinctively when to allow and when to say no. Making the decisions about how to raise our children to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults is the toughest job we will ever take upon ourselves. But maybe if we begin our day with the morning benedictions and we recite that first benediction with mindfulness, with kavanah, we can focus our thoughts each day on the need to make distinctions in the way we confront each foot stomp, each NO!, each tantrum, each attack of one sibling on another, and most important, each challenge to our authority. And maybe just the awareness that we have choices at each step of the way, and that the choice we make in the morning may not work in the afternoon, can be the first step in raising our children right.

Jewish Parenting Through the Lens of the Liturgy - 2

Traditionally, morning prayers open with a list of 14 benedictions, originally said as people began their day - there was a prayer for unwrapping oneself from one's covers, for putting on one's shoes, for tying the belt around one's coat. Eventually, the list found its way into the prayerbook and was recited together, whether at home or in the synagogue, after all those preparations had already been completed. As I have read these benedictions, I have been regularly impressed with lessons they can teach us as parents, and in this blog I will be reflecting on each of the benedictions, one a day, for the next few weeks (holidays permitting).
The Second Benediction - The Yin and the Yang
ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני בצלמו
Praised are You, Adonai, our God and Sovereign of the Universe, who made me in Your image.

I have for a long time understood this benediction from a parenting point of view as turning our focus on each of our children as they are, not as we would wish them to be. Whether we have one or ten, some kids are just as we would have wished, others aren't. Some want to follow in our footsteps, others have no interest in our life's work. Some remind us of beloved relatives, others of relatives we would rather forget. We project so much onto our children, from the moment of birth (whom does the infant remind us of?), that sometimes we forget that we are dealing not with a reflection of someone else's character or dreams or goals but with an unfolding gift from God, created in the divine image, with dreams and goals of their own. If we are made in God's image, so too are our children - and our job is not to create them into our image but to encourage the God-given talents they possess so that they may blossom into their own rendition of the divine image.

That's been my understanding for many years. Today I have another understanding to add.

A careful reading of the Hebrew in Torah will remind us that there are two basic names for God, found in our sacred text and in our liturgy: Adonai and Elohim (rendered eloheynu - our God - in prayer). The rabbis of our tradition puzzled over these two names, deciding that like any name, these terms have come to teach us something about the God they describe. The entire first chapter of Torah refers to God as Elohim. It isn't until after the beginning of chapter two, when the first week of creation is finished and we turn to the more detailed story of the creation of Adam and Eve, that the name Adonai appears. Why this distinction, the rabbis ask. And of course they have an explanation.

God has two overriding qualities: the quality of justice and the quality of mercy. In the first chapter of Torah, the world is created in a rather removed way: God say "Let there be..." and there was. Creation happens with words, not by interaction with the creation. Everything is orderly. Each day has a purpose. And God is Elohim. So this then is the expression of God as Judge, and meter-out of order and logic.

Comes chapter two, and God - Adonai this time - gathers earth from the four corners of the world and shapes a person. Shapes a person. Hands-on. Breathes the breath of life into the person's nostrils. Breathes into the person's nostrils. This is an involved God, and a God that is dealing in an on-going way with people, those creatures with the free will chip. And so the name of God is Adonai, an expression of the quality of mercy, since without mercy, those people would not long survive. Remember that the first limit God imposes is that Adam and Eve not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And the first thing they do is eat the fruit. The threatened punishment? Death. But of course we know that the punishment is mitigated, and the forebears of humankind suffer only expulsion (and we can use "only" in relation only to death - there is nothing pleasant about expulsion). In order for God to maintain a relationship with God's creation, God must be a God of mercy as well as a God of justice.

The rabbis relate a midrash asking why both qualities were needed at creation, and they reply: In order for the world to remain in existence, there must be mercy, but a world with only mercy and no justice is a world of chaos.

And this midrash brings us to the second understanding of the benediction thanking God for having created us in the divine image. What does it mean for us as parents to be Godlike? To maintain both qualities, of justice and of mercy. This observation dovetails nicely with yesterday's post, but I need to expand the notion a bit.

What does it mean to be a parent of justice? It's not just about sharing and figuring out who gets the last piece of cake. It's about rules and the maintenance of rules. It's about expectations: clean your room, brush your teeth, say please and thank you. In those families where it is a custom, saying the Sh'ma before going to sleep. Teaching children obligations and limits and then expecting those obligations and rules to be remembered and observed. Developing a Torah of your own family and holding it sacred. For every parent that believes that children should be free to do as they choose, go to sleep when they like, have Twinkies for breakfast, there are legions of parents who will attest to the fact that children need structure. They need to know what's expected of them, because then they know that someone loves them enough to help them grow up to be responsible adults.

So then, what does it mean to be a parent of mercy? It means listening to your child. It means that when a child says "no," there are two roads in front of them: they can be listened to and perhaps be accommodated, or we can insist on the behavior we required and at best continue to beat down a child's natural independence, or at worst, watch a melt-down. I remember a little girl once who didn't want to wear a dress her mother had bought her. The interchange escalated with blinding speed - "wear it!" "no!" Finally, someone asked the child why she didn't want to wear it. (After all, was this only a fashion statement?) Turns out there was something in the design of the dress that was scratching the child. A quick repair by her mom made the dress acceptable.

Do we listen to our children? Do we ask why they are upset, or is it just too expedient to expect them to follow our directive? Some rules must be followed - bedtime, tooth-brushing, simple manners - but other directives may be perceived as being arbitrary (and as a mother I can say honestly that some directives really are arbitrary), and our quality of mercy must rise so that we can hear our children's complaints and questions. We may end up still insisting on compliance, but at least the child has been heard, and that is an important building block of the child's self-esteem. As I observed yesterday, taking the time to really hear your child takes time and patience, neither of which are usually in great supply when parenting, but they are critical to the task at hand.

Two ways, then, that we as parents can demonstrate to God our gratitude for having been created in the divine image: we can celebrate each child for their reflection of the divine, however that reflection appears, and we can be Godlike ourselves in our relationship with our children, reflecting both justice and mercy as elements of our love for them.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tishri versus Nisan

In my previous post, I contemplated the true beginnings of the festival of Passover, and my good friend Joel Bassoff observed that just as it begins before it begins, so too does it go on past the eight days on the calendar: how long do we still find matza crumbs on the couch, in our beds, under furniture...? I replied that a high school student of mine had a similar observation about Yom Kippur. I asked why the day is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Besides the fasting, what makes it so different from other Shabbatot? This particular student made some great observations: that it's longer than a regular Shabbat, not only because we finish eating before sunset so it's more like 27 hours long, but for spiritual reasons as well. We prepare by seeking forgiveness from our family and friends in the days leading up to the holiday, and when it's over we feel the effects of our pursuit of forgiveness by the lifting of the burden of guilt we may have been carrying around with us for months. We feel God and our loved ones have forgiven us, and our soul is unburdened. That comparison between a long Shabbat (Yom Kippur) and the Festival of Matza that goes on forever prompted me to think some more about the two sacred benchmarks of the Jewish liturgical year.

The obvious truth is that both are concerned with food. Yom Kippur is concerned with worrying about what to eat before the fast, and what to eat after the fast, and all the things we can't be eating during the fast. It's all about food and the lack of food and (hopefully) the appreciation that when the fast is over, we will have the blessing of a laden table and probably family and friends with whom to share the bounty. Passover of course is also all about food. We may worry about what to serve at Rosh Hashanah and Thanksgiving and Shavuot, but the preparation for those holidays doesn't come anywhere near all the preparation and concern for legalities we face at Passover time. Not only do we have special foods from our family traditions, but there are dishes we prepare because they allow us to feast without transgressing the requirements not to have any leavening on our table. We have to buy everything for Passover, down to the mayonnaise and ketchup. The flurry at the markets is intense. Sometimes I think we have to force ourselves to think about the real meaning of the festival, the liberation from slavery with the goal of forging a new nation with ethical obligations and lessons to teach the world. It's too often all about cleaning and shopping and cooking.

And that of course is unfortunate. The emphasis on food is so great, greater than at any other time of the year, that we lose sight of the spiritual components of the festival. But perhaps we can learn something from this emphasis on food.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is to stand in a supermarket or a local neighborhood kosher market (even worse) and amid all the noise and tumult of the last-minute shoppers, try to evoke words of mindfulness. But I'd like to suggest a kavanah - words of intent - next time we begin our Passover shopping: Master of the Universe, Guardian of my soul, how am I nourishing my spirit as I rush to prepare to nourish my family's bodies? At this time of year, when we are so worn out with the preparations for the festival, it is so easy to think about only the kind of food you can chop or puree or bake or roast. Of course it's unreasonable to expect someone already overloaded with work to find time to meditate on liberation as the festival approaches, but once the holiday is here, do we consider how we nourish our souls? The rabbis speak of ridding our souls of hametz by ridding ourselves of arrogance and self-importance. But what about the haroset, the yummy mixture (varying in composition depending on where in the Jewish world you are from) that is supposed to mimic the mortar with which the Israelites built the cities of Pharaoh? What sweetness do we bring into our lives? What renewal do we allow ourselves as we contemplate the parsley, symbol of springtime? What hope for the future do we nurture, as we look upon the roasted egg (meant to represent the generic festival sacrifice in Temple times, but seen by my eldest as representing the next generation of a chicken - he observed once when he was about 13 that the egg is the next generation of the Jewish people, always present on the seder plate)? When we think about the shank bone, do we think about where we will find the strength to face whatever challenge confronts us?

How do we nourish ourselves at this time of year (and going forward)? We are taught that after we break the fast on Yom Kippur night, the first thing we are to do is set the foundation of our sukkah. We are not to dwell in the past, on the sins we had to confront during the Days of Awe just ending - we are to look to the future. We are to prepare for the joyous festival of Sukkot. In the same way, if we look at Passover just right, if we take the time to nourish our souls as we do our bodies, we can also find ways to prepare for the future. And wasn't that really the Israelites' problem all along? That they spent so much time looking back at the false security of Egypt that they couldn't face the difficulties of moving across the desert to the Promised Land?

Both times of the year are about letting go, looking ahead, and finding strength to face the future.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

When Does Passover Begin?

I've been thinking a lot about liminal moments. My teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, spoke about these moments as thresholds between one stage of life, or one moment in the liturgical year, and another. Breaking the glass under the huppah ends the single status of the people under the huppah and begins their life together. Lighting candles ends the workday week and begins Shabbat; extinguishing the havdalah candle ends Shabbat and begins the workday week. Liminal moments.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about when sacred time begins, and I don't think it begins with the lighting of candles. In particular, when exactly does Shabbat begin? Does it begin when we buy our hallot? Does it begin when we pick something lovely to wear to synagogue, or when we decide who our Shabbat guests will be or what the menu will be? Sacred time begins long before it really begins.

Passover is around the corner - as I write this, on Sunday, the first seder is less than 24 hours away. Most of the shopping has been done (although there's bound to be something we've forgotten at the last minute) and all the cleaning is done and the hametz has been sought and found and put outside to be burned tomorrow morning. All the pre work has been done. The house is gleaming. We're all very satisfied.

And so I believe that Passover has already arrived, in its own way. And my question is, when did it really begin?

For the last few years, because of my living arrangements where making Passover is difficult, I've taken advantage of my children's gracious hospitality and moved in with them for the week (plus a day or so in the beginning to help cook). My daughter-in-law told me today that for her, Passover arrives when I show up with my suitcase. (Bubby as Mary Poppins - I'll accept that.) Her revelation was prompted by my reaction to her putting out a tablecloth that she keeps for just this week - when the table was covered, it was Passover.

When I was making my own seders, the first dish I made each year was the haroset. No good reason, but it was quick, didn't require cooking, and it was quintessentially Passover. Matza ball soup and stuffed chicken and brisket and even matza farfel kugel can appear on the table pretty much any time. But haroset says Passover in a way nothing else does.

But it's not the haroset that says Passover has begun. It's finding the special dishes that were my mother's, bringing them out, and wiping away the tears that return every year as I do. Cleaning the kitchen and emptying the shelves doesn't say Passover - finding the little brown teapot and the cranberry glasses and the old dishes (older than I am) that don't even make a complete set, and the stemware (ditto) - that is what Passover is. I unwrap these treasures and the holiday has begun.

So - when does Passover begin for you? At what moment do you know that the holiday is really coming? Is it when you see the boxes of matza on the supermarket shelves (sometime before Purim)? Is it when you dig out your special holiday recipes? Or when you plan your guest list? What unique moment tells you that Passover is around the corner?

Re-Thinking Passover

Ask any Hebrew School student and they'll tell you what Passover is all about: liberation from slavery. Once we were slaves and now we're free, and the Haggadah tells us that we are obligated to think of ourselves as though we ourselves left slavery in Egypt. The rabbis teach many important lessons about the exodus narrative: that when we stood at the Sea of Reeds, the waters would not part until one Israelite had the faith to walk into the water; that the slavery experience was educative, so that we would experience being Other and would hold onto that awareness no matter where we go as a people, no matter whether we are Other or the majority culture; and repeatedly we are told to take care of the vulnerable in society "because you were slaves in Egypt." Remember, says God, that I cared about you not only because you were My cherished people but because you were vulnerable. Remember that I care about the oppressed, that I want them to be cared for, and if you recall your experience under the burden of slavery you will remember to care for the oppressed wherever they are, because I care about them as well.

Lots to think about this time of year, along with the shopping and cleaning and cooking.

But I think that within the scope of the cleaning and the cooking and the moving dishes and pots from here to there, only to move them again in a week from there to here, there is another very important lesson to learn from the exodus experience. We are not in control.

Remember that we suffered 400 years as slaves. Finally, God says to Moshe, "the cries of your people have reached Me." We were liberated when God chose to liberate us. Of course, the obvious response is, what took God so long? And my answer is, I wish I knew. But that's the point. Liberation happened, not in our time but in God's time.

Then we moved out into the desert and began the trek from Egypt to Eretz HaKodesh (the Promised Land). A pillar of smoke and fire went before us to guide us. When the pillar settled, we made camp. When it lifted, we broke camp and moved on. I think the breaking up and setting up of camp is what we are emulating this time of year, and while keeping a second kitchen, maybe in the basement, so the moving of equipment is not necessary, is a great energy saving idea, it allows us to miss the point - kind of like kosher for Passover bagels and muffins. You can make them, but how do you remember it's Passover? It's precisely the packing and moving that puts us back in the desert.

And we didn't move when we felt like it. We moved when the pillar moved. What was the impetus to move? Who knows? But when the time came to break camp and move on, women packed pots and men gathered the animals, and children and the elderly were put on goats and in carts, and the whole multitude moved on. For 40 years, we were not in control. We had a sense of our goal, but not of how long it would take nor what precisely the route would be. We had no Auto Club to help plan the most direct route. We depended on God's direction, and that and the manna were all we had.

Not much has changed. We are not in control, not really. A Yiddish proverb says, Man macht und Gott tracht - We plan and God laughs. When and whether we find our life partner, when and whether we have children, how successful our professional life will be - much of this is in our hands, but much is not. How quickly things come to pass, how fast we progress along our life's path, how readily we perceive the truths around us - much of all this is not in our hands. And we are frustrated and impatient and want things to be different.

At this time of year, as we imagine ourselves as having left Egypt with Moshe and the mixed multitude, perhaps we should also be thinking of how impatient we were as we moved across the desert, and how little of that trek was in our hands. (Come to think of it, the only part of our lives that's in our hands is how we react, and as I recall, the Israelites whined for 40 years, so much so that God decided not to allow the generation of the exodus to enter the Land. So much for the efficacy of kvetching.)

All is in God's hands, the rabbis teach us, except the fear of God. The point of that expression is that viewing God with awe is our choice, but the first part is equally important: how we respond to our lives has only one effect, and that is to define the quality of our lives - are we content, are we stressed, are we angry, are we at peace with ourselves? Putting ourselves back on the desert might teach us an important lesson in patience and looking at life from the long view. Israel got home. And so, eventually, will we.

Hag same'ah - may you have a sweet and kosher Pesah.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Our Society is Built in Our Classrooms

I'm sitting and listening to a conversation on NPR with a professor who's written a book on the state of higher education today. He talks about trying to teach English to people who are simply not interested in the subject but who have to take the class because it's required (writing, literature, what we used to call English 1A back at UCLA). He suggests that people are being required to get that BA for whatever job they need (the BA is the new high school diploma), even if what they're learning isn't really relevant to their job goal. For the first time, I joined the conversation and posted the following on the moderator's page:

I think the issue is far broader. Our society has changed so dramatically since I was in college in the 60s. We have become far too practicality-oriented, and we are no longer teaching critical thinking. The lower-division basic education we were all required to take before our major work taught us to synthesize, to weave together all the studies we struggled through. Today it's all about getting the degree and getting out to work. The more critically we think, the better citizens we become. I'm not impressed with focused degrees like MBAs. I'm more impressed with the breadth of a person's education, and kids (and schools) don't get that. It's a terrible loss to our society.

The moderator actually read most of my post on air and then the speaker disputed my point, that teaching critical thinking has been tried and it just hasn't worked.

I wanted to weep.

I do believe that we have become far too goal-focused in our society. We don't know how to think. The victory of Tea Party candidates and the belief that the health care overhaul is bad - BAD - even though it's great that this or that provision has proven really useful all point to the inability of many people to listen carefully to what politicians are saying. For a politician to rage at his supporters that "it's not about jobs and the economy, it's about stopping the federal government from funding abortion" even though it's long been prohibited for any abortion provider to receive federal funding for that procedure, and for his followers to cheer as though the man is saying something radical is simply unacceptable. Where is the voice declaring that he's nothing more than a demagogue?

A liberal education would provide people with the ammunition to think back at people who claim that the founding fathers eliminated slavery, would teach people that nothing is black and white, and anyone who tries to divide people into neat us versus them camps is pandering and to be suspicious of that person's motives. Allowing young people to grow up without the ability to think critically produces an electorate (if they even bother voting) too easily led. I remember one of the teaching units back in English 1A where we watched television commercials and looked at print ads and were asked to explain what the ad writer had really meant. What's the hidden message? What fear or need were they addressing? It was enlightening.

Are our kids being challenged? I had a professor of history when I was a freshman who delighted in bursting bubbles every chance he got. We brought all our preconceived notions to class and he destroyed them on a weekly basis. We fumed as we left, but we learned to think, if only to decide that he really had been wrong after all.

Who's teaching our kids to think? And more to the point, what are the expectations in our homes? Are our parents still asking "Did you ask good questions today?" I've engaged in so many debates with my own kids, some that have given me headaches, but at the end we had both grown, both been pushed to look at the issues differently. Are the parents of our school children and college kids also expecting their kids to be challenged intellectually? Or only to get a degree and then get out and go to work?

The liberal education used to be the gold standard. Then back in the 60s, kids started to rebel and say that it was irrelevant. Over the decades, we've repeatedly tweaked our thinking, and education has become less prescriptive - what do we want the society to look like - and more descriptive - let's teach kids what the society has decided is important. How do we build a society if all we're doing is giving people the entry ticket into the job market and calling it a college degree?